After Saturday’s 7-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins, 29 games are in the books for the Cleveland Indians this season. With almost one-fifth of the schedule already completed, the team is a confusing 10-19, eight and a half games out of first place, and owners of the worst record in the American League.
The Indians are easily one of the biggest disappointments on the baseball scene, especially after their dreaded appearance on the regional cover of Sports Illustrated has drawn frequent comparisons to a cover jinx tracing back to the 1987 Indians squad that underperformed to a 61-101 record (.377) that year.
Sure, other Cleveland players (see: Grady Sizemore, Manny Ramirez, or Albert Belle) have graced the cover since that deplorable piece of literature, but it was the prediction of the publication that proved to be more curse than correct. Maybe there is something to it though. Regretfully, I inform you that this year’s Indians team is on a present pace to finish even worse than the ill-fated ’87 team. The 2015 Tribe’s present .345 win-loss percentage has the club on pace for a 56-106 record.
Let that marinate a little. If the season were to end right now, which might put some fans out of their joint misery, that win-loss percentage would rank as the second worst in the 115 years of the Cleveland franchise, trailing just the 51-102 season of the 1914 Naps.
It’s a good thing it’s still early and there are plenty of games to play, right? It won’t stay like this all season. It can’t possibly stay like this forever. It isn’t even technically summer yet, even if the thermometers are being teased with an early dose of 80’s and sunshine.
It has to get better…obviously. These guys are too talented to struggle like this for a whole season, not with a manager like Terry Francona in the dugout.
I need a hug.
This is all just a bad dream. Pinch me. Shake me. Scare me…don’t scare me, this season has already done that well enough while making me question everything I know about the game of baseball.
To make a case for the Indians, they are not the only team struggling to add tallies to the win column. Eight of the 15 teams in the AL, including the Indians, are below the .500 mark and nine of the 15 in the National League are at or below the same line of mediocrity. Three more of those teams with winning records stand just one game above the .500 mark.
So what does it all mean?
It is a long season. Anything can happen over the next 133 games. Any team is just one long winning streak (or one extended losing streak) from changing the course of their October vacation planning. Baseball fans have seen such things happen as recently as last season. It takes a little luck…okay…a lot of luck, and some skill, some good fortune, and maybe a pact with some shady individual for the lofty price of one’s soul.
The best thing that the Indians could do is score some runs when it matters the most. They are hardly the worst team in plating runs this season, which feels hard to state and harder to believe. Five teams in the AL have scored fewer runs than Cleveland after Saturday’s games, and four of those five teams have played more games than the Indians.
The Indians are 17th in all of baseball with 126 runs scored in 29 games. Their average runs per game, 4.34, ranks them 15th overall.
It could be worse. But it could be better. So how do they fix this?
Give Corey Kluber, his other three established arms, and whomever suits up every fifth day, some run support. Allow pitchers a little bit of wiggle room to make a mistake. It has to be tough to perform at the top of your craft when you are afraid to make the slightest mistake.
Right now, the pitching staff has allowed 151 runs this season. Again, much like the offense, it is not the worst, but unlike the offensive production, it is much, much closer to the bottom. The Colorado Rockies have allowed 151 runs in two fewer games. The Boston Red Sox have allowed 158 in 30 games and just hired Indians Triple-A pitching coach Carl Willis to fix their problems. The Milwaukee Brewers, the MLB’s worst team at 10-21, have allowed 162 in 31 games. Oh, and they fired their now ex-manager Ron Roenicke this week.
Four teams – the Brewers, Red Sox, Rockies, and Toronto Blue Jays – have allowed more earned runs. And in no major surprise given the consistent bashing of the errors, woes, and mental lapses of the defense, their 14 unearned runs allowed are sixth-most in all of baseball. A suspect defense combined with a pitching staff allowing the MLB’s highest on-base percentage (.348), second-highest batting average (.279), and third-highest WHIP (1.49) is just a recipe for a meal that will be tough to digest if consumed for the next five months.
That pitching staff, the supposed strength of this team coming into the year, both in a perceived deep rotation and a veteran and established returning bullpen, has been anything but consistent throughout the early going. Their team ERA of 4.85 is only better than Boston’s 5.04 and Colorado’s 5.34.
While scoring 4.34 runs per game, the pitchers (and the same offensive players behind them in the field) have combined to allow 5.21 runs per game.
I’m not implying anyone should lose their jobs over this start. I’m also not saying it is out of the question at some point. The offense has scored, just not in close games and not when it has mattered the most. Who takes the blame for the lack of consistent production? Is it the players? Or the coaches?
The Indians have played a grand total of two games that have been decided by one run. They lost both. For comparison’s sake, there were two one-run finals on Saturday alone. Only one other team this season (Kansas City) has as few as five one-run finals. Twenty-eight of the 29 teams have won as many one-run games as Cleveland has played in total. Only Oakland, which is 1-9 in their ten one-run games this season, has failed to win at least two.
The Tribe is 4-3 in games decided by two runs. In all games decided by three runs or more, they are just 7-14, almost on pace with their abysmal season winning percentage.
Last season, the Indians struggled to score runs when they needed them and it proved to be a deciding factor in their outside view of the playoffs at year’s end. In exactly half of their games, they scored three runs or fewer and had a record of 25-56 in those games (.309).
This season, they have scored three runs or less in 41.4% of their games, worse than last year’s 50%. Their record in these games is an even more disparaging 1-11 (.083). It has come to a point where broadcasts of the Indians games may need to add a warning label indicating that “viewer discretion is advised”.
The Indians are getting runners on base, and a lot of the time to start innings. They own an MLB-best .297 average leading off innings. Once runners are on base, their average falls to .243, tenth in the AL. Once runners get into scoring position, the mark increases slightly to .251 and into the eighth spot on the AL’s leaderboard with the seventh-most RBI in that situation.
They can score runs at an average pace. They just are not scoring them at the right time. A handful of games have gone in their favor, as they are a perfect 5-0 when scoring seven runs or more in a contest. But if a team scores seven runs or more in a game, they better be taking home a victory more often than not! It also shows that half of the Indians wins came as a result from scoring more than a half dozen runs, and those outlying scores skew their average runs scored per game heavily – taking away the 49 runs scored in those five games, they have scored 77 runs in the remaining 23 games, an average of 3.35 runs per game.
It isn’t one thing that is broken on this Indians team. A successful team is going to be greater than the sum of its parts and, right now, the Indians are not even playing individually up to their potential, with the exception of Michael Brantley and the revived bat of Jason Kipnis, who has re-surged in his new spot at the top of the lineup.
I don’t have the answers and I wish I did. Maybe the jinxes and jixes are real. Maybe Cleveland truly is cursed. All we can do is hold our collective breath that the bats prove more consistent, the bullpen stabilizes, the rotation is supported, and injuries are kept to a bare minimum. It’s either that, or Cleveland fans are in for an Indians-less summer counting down the days until Browns training camp.
Photo: AP Photo/Paul Sancya